NFFF Hosts Occupational Cancer in the Fire Service Strategy Meeting

By Ron Siarnicki

“I’m tired of attending funerals for my fire service brothers and sisters who’ve died from cancer!”

This is the frustration of a fire service leader looking for answers to something that hits home with every firefighter. And there is a reason why this is personal to so many of us – firefighters are more likely to develop cancer than the general population.  The recently released Tampa 2 report outlines the trend within the fire service to begin doing more research on diseases that may take the lives of our fellow firefighters, sometimes years after they have stopped going to emergency calls.

VIDEO: Firefighter Cancer Support Network Chief on Leadership in Fighting Firefighter Cancer

This is why the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation hosted last week’s Occupational Cancer in the Fire Service Strategy Meeting. The meeting was not an attempt to just share information about the most recent research on cancer rates among firefighters. It was our first chance to bring all the fire service organizations to together to develop a strategy – an action plan – for making a change. Several organizations have been on the leading edge of the cancer issue including the IAFF and others.  The meeting provided a platform to understand what those organizations have been doing and how all the others can come alongside to provide support.

At the meeting, Dr. Robert (Doug) Daniels reported that a 2013 NIOSH study indicates firefighters are more likely to develop these type of cancers than the average person—lung esophageal, gastrointestinal and mesothelioma. The 2014 Nordic and Australian studies show similar results.

As the presentations and discussions progressed, we realized that there are a lot of gaps in grasping the enormity of cancer among firefighters. Most of the participants in these studies so far have been white males and we need to learn more about cancer rates and types among women, minorities, volunteer, and career. We also need to know about the families of firefighters and the impact of second-hand exposure.

We need to treat every incident like a HAZMAT!

This was expressed repeatedly during the sessions. And for good reason.

It’s not simply smoke we’re inhaling, it’s the countless by-products from the chemicals that are in building materials, furniture, carpets and drapes. It’s the toxic spills from auto crashes and unknown sludge from warehouses. It’s the diesel exhaust in the station bays and the contaminated particles on our boots, gloves and hoods that we bring back with us to the firehouse. And it’s the many other unknowns that get in our lungs, eyes, ears and on our skin.

But what should get the attention of every firefighter is that your family is also being exposed to these same cancer-causing agents if you bring contaminated PPE into your home.

Prevention is our first and most critical step. Imagine you’ve returned from a call. It doesn’t matter if it’s a house fire, a car crash or a brush fire. You’re hot and tired and you just want some food and water.

You get out of your rig. You toss your turn-out gear onto a hook or maybe in a locker, your gloves fall to the floor, your helmet drops next to your boots and you wipe your hands on your pants. Then you head to the kitchen to grab something to eat and drink, and you sit down to relax for a moment.

Dangers of Fire Smoke Exposure

Did you shower, and change clothes and shoes? Did you hook up the hose on your rig? Did you wipe down your gear? Did you even bother to wash your hands? If not, you’ve just left a trail of potential carcinogens behind you, exposing others. You’ve also picked up food that now can carry those same carcinogens into your body.

“As an instructor, I can take five minutes in every class to talk about wearing SCBA during overhaul, not smoking, cleaning hoods and hooking up the hoses in the bays. I can reach 80 people in every class and I don’t need thousands of dollars to do this.”

Everyone nodded in agreement when one of the firefighters attending the meeting made that statement.  It makes it clear that we don’t have to wait for money or a major program. We can set the wheels of change in motion NOW to start preventing firefighter cancers.

One of the great challenges is helping younger firefighters realize the habits they form from day one can affect their lives long after retirement.

Everyone at the Strategy Meeting knows firefighters who have battled cancer. And I am sure all of you do, too. Some are winning these battles, while others fought valiantly, but sadly lost their fight. As we see the number of line-of duty-deaths slowly decline, we are beginning to also see the number of cancer-related deaths increase. That’s not okay.

This meeting was a first step. We reviewed the science and discussed where the research is lacking. We talked about what each of us can do to help prevent cancer. Most importantly, we all agreed we must be the champions for all those who are fighting – or will fight – any form of malignancy and make cancer research and prevention a fire service priority.


RON SIARNICKIRON SIARNICKI rose through the ranks of the Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department to chief of the department. He retired in 2001 to become executive director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. He has a master’s degree from the University of Maryland and is a certified fire officer IV.

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